Texas arts and cultural tourism dollars under attack

The Texas Miracle is dead, but the intransigent belief in the low taxes and business-friendly policies that were supposed to save the state from recession lives on. Less than half a year ago, just prior to his reelection, Governor Rick Perry was boasting that Texas still had billions “in reserve.” We now know that massive revenue shortfalls are expected. Predictably, both houses of the Republican-dominated Legislature have responded with budgets that do little to raise revenue, but slash spending for the next two-year budget cycle. The decrease of nearly $23 million dollars in House Bill 1 passed March 23 represents a 12.3-percent loss of funding from 2010-11 levels. Austere, yes, but business friendly? Not to the state’s $4.5 billion arts economy. It could have been worse. In his February 8 State of the State address, Perry suggested support for “non-mission-critical entities like the Historical Commission or the Commission on the Arts” be suspended. With current budget proposals under House Bill 1 (and the corresponding Senate Bill 1) offering the Texas Commission on the Arts half its previous budget, it appears the TCA has survived a near-death experience. How TCA will function in such diminished capacity, if the budget is approved as is, remains to be seen. The reduced TCA funding of approximately $3.8 million per year for the next two years represents only 0.0085 percent of the total state budget.

The attack on the arts is not unique to Texas. Eleven states, including Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin have critically curtailed state arts appropriations or moved to eliminate them entirely. And the budget debates — which typically unfold with intitial proposals, followed by responses from state legislatures and pleas from advocacy groups — will likely continue nationwide through June, when legislative sessions come to a close and budgets are finalized.

With critical services such as health and education hard hit, there is less concern in the Lege for sectors that Perry has dismissed as “non-essential.”

What Perry and others are missing is that the TCA ain’t no fluff factory sucking up resources from more productive areas of the state’s economy — an attack on arts in Texas is an attack on the very pro-business policies the state supposedly endorses.

“The Texas Commission on the Arts — through investments in arts organizations in both urban and rural Texas — is an economic driver, not a drain on the state’s coffers,” states a February 9 letter of protest to Governor Perry from the advocacy group Texans for the Arts. The slashes to TCA’s budget will eliminate the commission’s staff by 30 percent and cut funding for its almost 1,400 grant recipients in half. These grants to nonprofit art organizations, which include youth symphonies, arts education programs, and public school districts, are not intended to provide complete support to any of the programs funded but are delivered as matching grants that bring additional money from outside the state economy.

The cuts to TCA reduce the amount the state spends on the arts, but they also reduce wealth that would come to the Texas economy from local and national groups like the National Endowment for the Arts. “TCA support is always important to us, while it doesn’t account for a huge amount in our overall budget, what it does is it provides leverage opportunities,” said Jon Hinojosa, executive director of SAY Sí, the innovative and highly acclaimed San Antonio after-school arts program. Hinojosa said that TCA support “clarifies to potential funders and individuals that we are an organization that meets some high standards.”

Save a dollar — lose a dollar, too. What happens when this income disappears? TCA director Gary Gibbs is explicit, “One of my concerns is that it will have an impact on employment. I fear a loss of jobs in the creative sector.” According to a recent study commissioned by the Texas Cultural Trust, the creative industries in Texas employ nearly 700,000 workers, who make on average 80 percent above the mean income in Texas. Nationally, employment has crept up from the dismal lows two years ago, but the job gains have been notoriously in the low-income brackets. With Texas now facing job losses, do we want to attack what is becoming the missing middle?

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) has fared even worse, with 76 percent of its budget proposed to be eliminated. The money they will receive is mostly matched by federal grants; it is distributed to each of the Commission’s Trail Regions. While the Historical Markers program will receive 16 percent cuts in staff, the rest of the programs will suffer 60 percent in staff reductions. The Courthouse restoration program, which employs many in rural areas, will receive no new funding.

Marketing for cultural tourism has also been eliminated from the new TCA budget, funding for cultural tourism programs severely curtailed, and the Texas Touring Roster, a program that supports performing groups’ travel within the state — a boon to both small town audiences and visitors from out of state — is in jeopardy. While tourism marketing may seem to be something easily accomplished by the private sector, past experience says otherwise.

David Teel, President and CEO of Texas Travel Industry Association, one of the few organizations providing tourism marketing assistance in the state, recounts an episode well known by tourism professionals. “In the ’90s Colorado eliminated completely its tourism marketing program,” Teel said. “Instantly they lost their number-one position in America for summer tourism. The next year the state lost eleven times more in tax income than the amount cut. Needless to say, they now have a tourism program back.”

According to several sources, the Historical Commission’s imperiled Texas Heritage Trails Program, a tourism initiative which returns $7.50 in taxes for each $1 spent in promotions, may be partially restored by the Lege, but only because the program draws federal matching funds. One might think the program’s wealth creation strong enough to merit support on its own. Tourism meant $11 billion to the “Alamo City” in 2008, according to the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau. What part of that, do you suppose, is cultural-tourism related?

“Our programs create jobs, there is no question about it. The spin-off impact on Texans will be very negative if, in fact, these programs are cut,” said Historical Commission Executive Director Mark Wolfe, “I understand that there are other programs that also need funding … but all I can say is if we have those funds, and if we are permitted to spend them on programs that the Legislature helped to create, we can create more jobs for Texans. That seems like a result that benefits everyone.”

That the Commission on the Arts survived at all may be due in part to the annual $1,075,000 Texas receives in National Endowment for the Arts investment. These funds will not be awarded without matching funds from the state, insured by TCA. If the loss of federal funds is an incentive to maintain state funding, what of the losses in other matching grants incurred by the reduction to the Commission on the Arts budget?

Though many will admit that the arts might have some value, some view art, and its supporters like TCA, as elitist — something for rich folk, but not for everyone. Surely funding education takes precedence. But seeing arts support as competition to education is a mistake in perception. “Arts organizations are in the communities, not just in their museum buildings or concert halls,” TCA Director Gibbs told the Current.

If not for the efforts of arts nonprofit organizations, there would be little arts education available, as the public school districts have been dropping art and music classes for ages, and increasingly so in the last few years. The cuts to TCA will affect the schools, too, as the Commission on the Arts supports many Texas school systems directly, and also supports arts nonprofits that provide the school systems with arts education.

Responding to the chronic cut-backs in the public schools to so-called “elective” subjects, such as visual art, music, and theater classes, San Antonio has developed a rich array of after-school arts programs that would be the envy of any city. Developed by necessity, they are presented by organizations such as SAY Sí, Jump-Start, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, and others, while arts education is provided to elders and the community at large by organizations like Bihl Haus Arts. Many of these groups are unique in the nation.

SAY Sí’s open-studio approach restores teaching traditions practiced by craft guilds for centuries, while its superb media lab is better equipped than those of many large universities. All provide programs that use learning not just to teach proficiency in the visual and performing arts, but also to create personal and community strength. In addition to programming offered by education based arts organizations, museums like the McNay present ongoing lectures and films to the community, while groups known for their stage presence enter the classroom directly.

Courtney Barker, the executive director of Ballet San Antonio, says the impending cuts could eliminate outreach into the low-income communities. “Our TCA grants provide funds for our Learning That Moves You program, our outreach arts education program. We go into especially low-income Title 1 elementary schools, and we perform for them and give them a lecture on dance. These are children that never have an opportunity to see performing arts.” Like many in the arts, Barker’s not ready to admit defeat for her organization’s programs, though in this economic climate the competition between nonprofits for funding outside of TCA will be tighter than ever. “We are pitching to granters `so` we can still provide arts education while the state is cutting everything,” Barker said.

Not all nonprofits will make it. Graciela Sánchez, director of the Esperanza, said that her organization is considering pooling forces by merging with another local nonprofit, though the notion is just one of many scenarios being examined as possible paths to insure services continue to be provided. The Esperanza is dedicated to ensuring civil rights for all peoples, especially women and the poor, and they have used arts programs such as their gallery to promote community cohesion since they formed more than 20 years ago. “Esperanza is like most mid-size and small organizations that don’t have the same connections to the wealthy people in this city or state, or to the foundations that tend to fund the bigger institutions,” Sánchez said, “We don’t have any endowments, so we rely on the community to support us in addition to local, state, and federal funds, and private foundations.”

Before the economy tanked a few years ago, there was much discussion in urban planning circles and the press about the “creative class,” a term made popular by Richard Florida. In his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class and subsequent volumes, Florida posits that a city’s economic strength is determined by how well it attracts what he calls the creative class, an aggregate of individuals that includes artists, yes, but also educators and, most importantly, engineers and entrepreneurs — all of whom are active in creating new technologies and the local economies that result from them. To attract people who will grow a city, Florida claims, it is necessary that the place be attractive, providing cultural attractions from theater to restaurants, good bookstores to music. It seems an obvious point, hardly worth mentioning for being no doubt true.

The new austerity currently in vogue claims to be the only answer to economic ills, and though it points to private enterprise as the only redemption for a broken economy, it seems to valorize a few improbabilities. If self-investment is necessary for growth in private business (it is), why not so for public business? If competition between companies rewards the more competent outfit, how is not also so between economies?

The “less is best” mantra is catchy for its simplicity, but perhaps it’s just simple-minded. The surety of its success is by no means proven. Instead, there is mounting evidence to the contrary. Since adopting a lean budget, Britain’s Tory government has announced not success, but instead is predicting an increasingly dismal economy, while its deficit heads ever higher. We are warned that if we don’t stop spending public monies, our country will end up like Ireland, the erstwhile Celtic Tiger. Austerity programs there, however, have yet to bring economic salvation.

Oh well, no loss. Who wants to live in an exciting place anyhow? Probably too busy and expensive. Let’s just turn on the TV and pass the chips and beer. You want some?


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